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how to get a job in television

It's Friday, it's five to five and it's Crackerjack!

When I was 11 my parents got audience tickets to go and see Crackerjack being recorded at the BBC. This was the first time I had sat in a television studio and I loved it.

Not only Slade, my favourite group, was on the programme, I just loved watching the lights, the cameras, the floor managers... in fact everything that was going on both in front and behind the camera. That was the day I decided I was going to work in telly.

So how do you get a job in television?

1 - Make a clear decision about what you want to do

So the next day I wrote to the BBC and told them I wanted to work for them, and was invited to join a school tour of the studios.

A couple of weeks later my mum and I arrived at the BBC studios but the school party didn't, so we got a private tour, just me and my mum. It was amazing... I went into the Top of the Pops studio during rehearsals and saw Christopher Cross singing Side Show, I saw Daleks in the props store, we got to experience BBC-Tea in the canteen... It was amazing... Yes, the BBC was where I was going to work.

When I went to school the following day I told my teachers that I was going to work for the BBC and make TV programmes for children. Their response was pretty much unanimous:

"Don't do that, you'll never get into the BBC, television is a difficult career, you're way too smart to work in the entertainment industry, do maths, do physics, do computer science... They'll be more job opportunities that way."

Being a well behaved, compliant little boy, I did what I was told, but I wasn't happy.

2 - Never give up on your dreams...

11 years later I graduated with a Computer Science Degree from Brunel University and I'm working in the IT industry designing information systems for the Royal Navy. Oh, and I still wanted to work in telly.

3 - Do whatever you can to gain experience

To satisfy my creative needs, I did Children's Theatre and volunteered at Great Ormond Street hospital radio, Radio GOSH, producing and presenting radio shows, oh, and I became a Children's magician!

4 - Be ready for when the luck arrives

One of the other volunteers at Radio GOSH worked at the BBC for the World Service, and every week she'd bring in Ariel for me (BBC's internal magazine), so I could look at the job pages in the back. One week there was a job in their computer department that I was perfectly qualified for, so I applied for the job and got an interview.

I did a great interview, they agreed I'd be good in the role, but then came the question "Why do you want to work for the BBC?"

My answer was simple "Because I want to make TV programmes" and I told them my story from when I was 11.

They offered me the job, and in August 1987 I started working for the BBC... OK, it wasn't in TV, but my chances of making TV programmes went for "no chance in hell matey" to "it's not going to be easy".

5 - Work twice as hard as everyone else

For the next 2 1/2 years I did two jobs. The one I was being paid for in the IT department, and the job of learning everything I could about directing. So I answered the telephones on the Saturday morning kid's show Live and Kicking so I could  be in the studios as much as possible, and helped out with Children in Need. I also sat in viewing galleries, got audience seats when I could, watched so much television output and came up with new ideas and formats for TV programmes.

The BBC had a scheme called the Attachment Program. The idea being you can be "loaned" from the department you worked in to another department, in order to grow your experience. Once a year Trainee Assistant Producer Attachments were available both in BBC Children's and BBC Schools Television - 6 for Children's and 3 for Schools. That's 9 opportunities a year. OK, several hundred people applied for the attachments each year, but still it was a chance.

So each year I'd apply for the attachments, and each year I'd be one of the 100 or so people invited for interview (all the hard work meant I came up with great programme ideas for the application), and every year I got through the first round of interviews, because the producers who grilled me loved my enthusiasm and ideas.

And every year I'd do a great second interview but got told the same thing... "Sorry, we've never had an engineer make TV programmes before". Yes, they thought IT was engineering back then!

6 - Be stubborn

Being the person I am, I always asked for feedback, so I called Lewis Bronze, the then editor of Blue Peter to talk about how I'd done in my interview with him, to which he was very positive and slightly disappointed that I hadn't been given a chance as he thought I'd be a great asset to the department. I asked if I could spend a week trailing one of his producers on the programme so I could get a bit more experience and he was more than happy to help. So I took a week of my holiday entitlement and in October 1989 I spent 5 amazing days following a lovely Blue Peter Producer called Richard Simpkin.

I sat in edits, watched studio planning meetings, sat in the gallery during the live programmes and watched a voice-over session. I even managed to write the opening of the Thursday Halloween Show.

It was an amazing week and I learnt so much, and at the end of the week I asked Richard if I could write that year's Blue Peter Christmas Panto. Richard said "sadly no, we already have a script, but I think you would have done a great job, what with all your kid's theatre background".

What a shame.

7 - Grab every opportunity

A couple of weeks later I was in the BBC canteen and I bumped into Richard, the producer I had worked with on Blue Peter. "How's the Panto going?" I asked, "The script is shit" was his response. "Don't worry, I'll have a great script on your desk tomorrow morning."

I stayed up all night, writing a pantomime script for Blue Peter, and true to my word it was on Richard's desk the next morning and he loved it and they went with it.

8 - Change people's perception of you

I was no longer the engineer who wanted to work in telly, I was the guy that wrote the Blue Peter Panto.

Timing was perfect as a week later I was having a meeting with the Head of BBC Schools Television, again trying to find out why he kept saying I'd be a great asset to his department, but why he never offered me a chance. His answer was that I had no experience working in television.

9 - Believe in yourself

I got angry "How the hell can I get experience working in television and show you how good I'll be unless you give me a chance."

With that little outburst, and him seeing the work I had done over the years, as well as knowing Blue Peter had taken a chance on my script, he repented and offered me a six-month attachment as a Production Trainee.

10 - Never give up until you succeed

That was December 1989... Since then I have had a very long and successful career in television and video production. I have worked with some wonderful craft people and talented performers, won awards and had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing what I knew I really wanted to do.

And I have so many stories from my time in telly.... But those will have to wait for future blogs.

6 comments on “how to get a job in television”

  1. Love it! Great story of grit and determination underpinned by joy. Thanks for sharing it Neil.

  2. My dad worked at the BBC, he took us round several times. We got to see Blue Peter being rehearsed, saw the Tardis (spoiler - it's not quite as big inside as they say lol), went to the costume department, had lunch in the restaurant, etc etc. I got a 6 months job at the BBC Light Entertainment Library which was fab as I was handling the photographic material related to the shows: old glass plate negatives, black & white prints, colour transparencies etc. At lunch they would take us to TVC, the TV rehearsal rooms on Wales Farm Road, or even Villiers House in Ealing. I saw Lenny Henry, Paul McGann, John Gielgud, the Howard's Way cast. I even met Sue Pollard in the queue in the restaurant. She pointed at the food in front of her and said "Don't have that love, it's cr*p!" lol
    An amazing place.

Neil Ben

Neil Ben is a Director, Coach and Trainer who works with Entrepreneurs, Sole Traders and SMEs, to help them use video to stand out from their competitors. He started his television career as an assistant producer in the BBC in the late 80s and has won many awards for both his broadcast and video productions including a BAFTA nomination and an FSB Award for Business Innovation.

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